What does a physicist look like?

#iamaphysicist - at the Solvay conference, 1927

#iamaphysicist – at the Solvay conference, 1927

In April, the Institute of Physics (IoP) released the results of a survey of their membership, entitled ‘What does a Physicist Look Like?’

The results represent 13% of IoP members, which doesn’t sound like many, but interestingly the age profile mirrors the known profile of the membership. Even more interestingly, 44% of respondents were under 29 – probably a direct consequence of IoP membership being free for 15-19s and undergraduates, but still, not what we’d expect from the traditional ‘old, male, pale’ stereotype conjured by ‘physicist’ from the broom cupboards in our brains.

Other findings from the survey were similarly non-stereotypical :

  • 28% of respondents were female
  • 10% identified as being black or from a minority ethnic background
  • 9% declared a physical or mental disability
  • 16% described their sexuality as gay, bisexual or other
  • 32% described their religion or belief as either Buddhist, Christian, Jewish, Muslim or Sikh
  • 29% have parents whose highest qualifications were obtained at high school

As with all surveys of this nature, we have to ask whether IoP members were more likely to respond if they were from a non-stereotypical group. These percentages may be inflated by those who feel they are in some way invisible, and are seeking to address this by taking the opportunity to notify their professional body of their existence.

The truth remains that the IoP survey has revealed diversity in the physics community which is often unexpected and risks being overlooked. And by raising their voices, these individuals have raised a large neon sign over their profession which reads “WE ARE HERE”. In doing so, they highlight the kaleidoscope of individuals within physics, and demonstrate the opportunities for all in the field.

This was further reflected in the incredibly successful Twitter initiative by IoP on 26th May, which encouraged physicists worldwide to tweet a photo of themselves (with a sentence or two of explanation) under #iamaphysicist. We will leave you to enjoy browsing through this thread, and the IoP’s own Storify which captures the variety of contributions.

You will notice that many female physicists are represented – we tried to capture these in our own Storify, but after a couple of evenings of oo-ing, aah-ing and clicking, we realised there were just so many it was almost impossible to collate them all. Enjoy browsing and discovering!

For more on the Diversity Programme at the IoP, click here.